Participants in KITP’s programs and fellowships are offered an array of activities that encourage working on cross-disciplinary topics with an international community of leading scientists. While group discussions around the blackboards of Kohn Hall or insightful talks are part of how physicists answer their biggest questions, KITP also places emphasis on bringing these answers to the public through outreach. Early-career scientists are particularly eager to gain professional experience in addition to their independent research, so they explore innovative ways to share their enthusiasm.
Recent KITP Postdoctoral Scholar Rocio Kiman (a postdoc at Caltech starting Sept 2022) came to KITP with plenty of outreach experience under her belt. She completed her PhD with the Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC), a research group based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she was a member of the Astronomy department. There, she participated in educational events for youth and families while familiarizing herself with working in a museum setting.
When she arrived at KITP in September 2021, Kiman was interested in pursuing outreach here, she just was not expecting it would be with another museum. Serendipitously, though, a fitting opportunity presented itself when she visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. As an astrophysicist studying M dwarfs (stars that are about 10-20% the mass of the Sun), Kiman was attracted to the astronomy section. When she reached out about volunteering, she received an overwhelming “yes and yes, we’d love to have you,” from Krissie Cook, the museum’s Astronomy Programs Specialist. Cook was thrilled to provide programming from a native speaker of Spanish—and science.
First, Kiman gave a talk about the Moon to the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast’s Astronomy Club before the lunar eclipse in spring 2022. Cook shared how the group was excited by “not just Kiman’s field of study, but also the way she related to them. It was really warming to see all these young girls inspired by this other woman in science who could inspire them to move on to a STEM career themselves.” Evidently, Kiman’s talk with the Girl Scouts was a success, and she was later invited to discuss the James Webb Space Telescope in a YouTube video created by the museum.
In July 2022, Kiman took on the challenge of facilitating shows about the Solar System at the museum’s Gladwin Planetarium—her first time using a planetarium in her career. It took plenty of practice before she was ready to present to the public, but she was excited to learn how to use such a dynamic teaching tool. Kiman emphasizes the planetarium’s unique ability to transform the learning experience for visitors. “Instead of imagining what a star or a planet looks like, I can take the public to it, and show them.” She took a creative approach towards her development as a science communicator, fostered by the unique and supportive environment KITP provides for postdoctoral scholars.
Other than gaining new pedagogical skills, Kiman was also meeting a community need by providing the only live Spanish-language show offered over the summer. “I’m Argentinian, so it is especially rewarding to use my first language to talk about science to the public and reach that big Spanish speaking community in Santa Barbara, and hopefully get them excited about science” she proudly explains. The role, as well as Cook’s belief that “all audiences are capable of learning,” aligned well with Kiman’s passion for making science more accessible. Kiman is careful to communicate scientific ideas “in a way that someone regular, from the public, can understand.” It is essential for Kiman to build a “connection” between the topic and the listener. She believes that without building this bridge of understanding, one could be discouraged by science instead of curious about it.
One way she practices this is by presenting “open problems,” or the issues that scientists still don’t entirely understand. By exposing others to the unanswered questions, she shows them that scientific discovery “is a path they can follow if they want to,” and “it’s not that far away from them.” Ultimately, she is determined to exemplify how “science is something extremely interesting and not just this remote thing that only a selected group of very smart individuals do. That’s the image that we have of science, and it’s not like that anymore.” Outreach like Rocio’s ensures that people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests can celebrate the wonders of science without barriers.
by Demi Cain, KITP Development Coordinator
Rocio Kiman presenting in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Gladwin Planetarium. Credit: Jeff Liang
Gladwin Planetarium visitors learning about the Solar System during Kiman’s show. Credit: Jeff Liang